Why does style matter more than substance?

October 8, 2008

This is the letter I wrote to The Star on Sunday afternoon in response to an excellent commentary by Haroon Siddiqui. It was published on Monday, October 6th.  The short line underneath my letter was written by a good friend and fellow activist Gary Markle and published on the same day:


TheStar.com – Federal Election –

Why does style matter more than substance?

October 06, 2008

Re:No charisma, not an orator, but a decent man of substance, Comment Oct. 5

Thanks, Haroon Siddiqui, for being the only mainstream columnist to voice the opinions of most of the people in my community who are outraged by the media’s blatant bias against Stéphane Dion. No matter what he does, says, or wears, it is derided, ridiculed and considered wrong by pundits, TV/radio hosts, newspaper commentators.

I am a member of a party other than the Liberals, yet I find these actions nauseating. They assume Canadians are so shallow and ignorant that we cannot see beyond Stephen Harper’s gimmicks, the out-of-context sound bites in his party’s attack ads and the media’s complicity in this campaign.

Stéphane Dion is a good, honourable man genuinely wanting what is best for his country. That he is not a member of the corrupt, scandalous Old Boys’ Club shows the obvious strength of his character; it is the reason why his party elected him.

Annamarie Bohus, Brampton

A true leader stands on integrity, not other people.

G. W. Markle, Brampton

Tomgram: Ira Chernus, Will Culture War Overshadow Real War in 2008?

August 1, 2008

All agree that this is (or should be) the year of the Democrats. But with candidate Barack Obama still leading, on average, in national polls by only about two to five percentage points, depending on the day, and the media proclaiming “oil” now a “Republican” issue, there’s certainly a long way to go to that prospective Democratic victory on November 4th. Still, in retrospect, this last week may be seen as the one in which Senator McCain’s campaign concluded that this might not only be the year of the Democrat, but of the Obamacrat as well, and went for the jugular.

Gallup polling, for instance, shows Obama making small but significant gains in every kind of state (red, purple, and blue) over the last two months. At the same time, Obama’s world tour — the one McCain and the neocons practically egged him into taking, with all those online tickers showing just how many days since he had last been to Iraq — left the McCain camp in full and bitter gripe mode. In the imagery of advisor and former Senator Phil Gramm, they had become a campaign of “whiners.” Meanwhile, the Berlin bounce finally showed up in the polls.

While Obama was wowing the Europeans, McCain managed to get an offshore-oil photo-op in the Gulf of Mexico wiped out by a somehow overlooked advancing hurricane. Instead, he ventured into a grocery store aisle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, prepped on rising food prices, where he met a “shopper planted by the local Republican Party” and experienced an unfortunate “applesauce avalanche.” (The Daily Show version of this is not to be missed.) Not surprisingly, by week’s end he was decisively skipping the “issues” and heading for “values” — that is, directly for the throat in the style which Republicans have, in recent years, made their own.

Earlier in the week, he had practically declared his opponent treasonous for supposedly putting his political campaign ahead of victory in Iraq — “It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign…” — and launched a classic Republican campaign attack on Obama’s “character.” His latest ad, which attacks Obama for supposedly going to the gym rather than visiting wounded American soldiers in Germany, typically ends: “McCain, country first.” (Versus… uh… Obama, country last?)

It’s not exactly surprising that candidate McCain headed for what he hoped was potential “values” and “character” pay dirt (emphasis on “dirt”) in tough times. As Ira Chernus — canny TomDispatch regular and author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin — points out, it may be his only chance. The question is: Will it work?

Will “character,” the culture wars, and security fears help elect the most woeful Republican candidate since Bob Dole — and in a country that not only increasingly doesn’t think much of Republicans, but has never cared to vote old? (Ronald Reagan was the exception to this rule, always running young and vigorous, whatever his age.) McCain, in a golf cart being piloted by 84-year-old George H.W. Bush, actually looked older than the former president. And, gee, you might go for the jugular early, too, in a year in which the Republicans don’t even control the political machinery of the state of Ohio.

Now, let Ira Chernus take you on a magical mystery tour of the strange world of American “values,” American “value voters,” and a mainstream media that values the value-voter story above all else. Tom

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

Tomgram: Greg Mitchell, Getting It Right on Iraq

March 19, 2008

Just imagine: You run a flagship national newspaper, the New York Times. It’s the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Your own record of reportage in the period leading up to the invasion was not exactly sterling. So, for a change of pace, you decide to turn most of your double op-ed page in your Sunday “Week in Review” over to people who can look back thoughtfully on the misapprehensions of that moment.

But who? Now, that’s a tough one. You want “nine experts on military and foreign affairs” who can consider “the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wished they had considered in the prewar debate.” Hmm, sounds like an interesting idea. Of course, one option would be to gather together an involved crew who, even before the invasion began, saw in one way or another that problems, possibly disaster, lay ahead. That would be a logical thought…

…But it wouldn’t be the Times, which this past Sunday chose to ask a rogue’s gallery of “experts” who led (or cheerled) us deep into the war and occupation what surprised them most. Leading off those pages were Richard Perle, nicknamed “the Prince of Darkness,” L. Paul Bremer III, the former American viceroy of Baghdad, who so brilliantly disbanded the Iraqi Army and much of the country as well, not to speak of invasion and occupation cheerleaders Frederick Kagan, Danielle Pletka, and Kenneth M. Pollack. With the exception of Pollack, all of them unsurprisingly pointed the finger elsewhere or claimed they were really on the mark all along.

So, just in case the Times has a sudden, bizarre urge on some future anniversary to ask a cast of characters who didn’t drive us into the nearest ditch to look back, it seems worthwhile to start on a list of suggestions for its editors. And that’s where Greg Mitchell, the editor of Editor & Publisher magazine, comes in.

He himself is a shining example of someone who exhibited foresight about the invasion and then regularly dealt with issues that the mainstream media was slow to pick up. Just take, for example, this initial sentence he wrote on March 7, 2003, less than two weeks before Bush’s invasion began, for a piece included in his new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, The Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq: “Considering that we seem to be on the verge of a major war, with little firm evidence of the Iraqi WMD driving it, the questions for Bush at his final press conference before the war seems likely to start were relatively tame.” Mitchell then asked 11 questions of his own, all more piercing than any posed on Sunday’s Times op-ed page five years later.

As his book makes brilliantly evident, you didn’t have to be wrong all the time to be an “expert” on Iraq. His article below begins the necessary acknowledgement of those who were right, or did right, in these years and it should encourage all of us to make our own lists and create our own walls of honor to go with the wall of shame the Times displayed Sunday.

My list would be long indeed, but it would certainly include: the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) reporters Warren Stroebel and Jonathan Landy in Washington, as well as Tom Lasseter, Hannah Allam, and others in Iraq who never had a flagship paper to show off their work, but generally did far better reporting than the flagship papers; Seymour Hersh, who simply picked up where he left off in the Vietnam era (though this time for the New Yorker); Riverbend, the young Baghdad blogger who gave us a more vivid view of the occupation than any you could ordinarily find in the mainstream media (and who has not been heard from since she arrived in Syria as a refugee in October 2007); Jim Lobe who covered the neocons like a blanket for Inter Press Service; independents Nir Rosen and Dahr Jamail, as well as Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent, who has been perhaps the most courageous (or foolhardy) Western reporter in Iraq, invariably bringing back news that others didn’t have; the New York Review of Books, which stepped into some of the empty print space where the mainstream media should have been (with writers like Mark Danner and Michael Massing) and was the first to put into print in this country the Downing Street Memo, in itself a striking measure of mainstream failure; and Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment website was so on the mark on Iraq that reporters locked inside the Green Zone in Baghdad read it just to keep informed.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

Tomgram: Jay Rosen, Mindlessness in the Media, Campaign 2008

January 26, 2008

Let’s see. They were wrong on Hillary Clinton, essentially nominating her for the presidency months before a primary was held. In Iowa, they were wrong on Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama, John Edwards and Clinton (again). In New Hampshire, wrong on Obama, Clinton (yet again), and — at least earlier in the campaign season — John McCain. In Michigan, wrong on McCain (again) and Mitt Romney. Just remind me, in this strange presidential nomination season in which each obscure primary is treated as if it were the night of the presidential election, when have they been right?

You know just who I’m talking about. Before we’re done — as with some losing sports team on a record-setting roll — the season’s entertainment may consist of rooting for them never to be right, straight through November 4, 2008. They could be the Buffalo Bills, who lost four Super Bowls in four consecutive years, or, more humbly, this year’s Miami Dolphins, who went 0-13, and became a national news phenomenon, before winning their first game.

These days, when you read anything about the next stop on the presidential primary local, as in this passage, even from a sharp observer like Michael Tomasky, you should run for the hills or head for the nearest bookie to plunk your money on a Giuliani loss: “It’s also suddenly plausible that Rudy Giuliani, who I still think may be the party’s strongest candidate for November, could elbow his way back into this thing. He’s counting on a win in Florida, which votes on January 29.”

Investigative journalist for the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh caught this spirit in a recent interview when he said: “If I knew this, I mean, who would win [the presidential race], I’d be at the race track everyday. Not reporting… No one knows. Listen, this is politics, and I’m just a guy who writes, who writes stories about the war.”

And don’t think sports is the worst analogy to use here either. After all they love it. They talk about “handicapping” each primary and, as if it were indeed a crucial bowl game, endless “high-stakes moments.” So think of the collective media (not leaving out their good right arm, the prolific pollsters) as the Miami Dolphins of this political season, already nearing 0-13 and surging toward a record — and we’re barely out of the first quarter in the slog to the presidency. At a time when TV’s fiction writers are MIA and much of TV life is deep in reruns and reality-show hell, political pundits, reporters, and talking heads, writer-less as they may be, can do no wrong by doing primary-season wrong. The political ratings are already smashing. As CNN/USA Today President Jonathan Klein puts it, without a sitting president or vice president in the race, these primaries are “like ‘The Apprentice.’ Except that you’re the ones that get to say ‘You’re Fired.’ ”

So I’m ready to handicap this one. The little media nag that couldn’t probably can’t. It isn’t coming up from the rear; it won’t win, place, or show, but when it gets one right, as when Miami won, that will be national news. In the meantime, consider just why this beast has no brain, as explained by one of the canniest media critics around, Jay Rosen, whose Pressthink blog is a must-read in any season. In his twentieth year of “horse-race criticism,” he’s long been involved in the attempt to provide alternative forms of coverage. Tom

The Beast Without a Brain

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

FAIR Action Alert: NBC Uninvites Kucinich

January 17, 2008


Action Alert

NBC Uninvites Kucinich

Rules changes kept progressive out of GE’s debate


In a bizarre move the network has yet to explain, NBC rescinded an invitation to Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich to appear in its January 15 debate in Las Vegas. The GE-owned media company went all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court to defend its decision–all the while failing to explain its logic to the public.

The network originally declared a straightforward test for candidates wishing to participate in the debate: A candidate had to finish in at least fourth place in either the New Hampshire primary or Iowa caucuses, or finish among the top four in one of six major national polls. Kucinich met the latter standard, and was sent a letter on January 9 acknowledging that he would be participating in the debate, designed to air candidates’ views before the January 19 Nevada caucuses.

But two days later, NBC political director Chuck Todd notified the Kucinich campaign that there were new rules: Candidates would have to have finished at least third in either Iowa or New Hampshire. The new standard eliminated Kucinich.

Of course, organizers of presidential debates have a right to establish neutral criteria for participation–criteria that should ideally be as inclusive as possible. But NBC has done little to explain why its original criteria suddenly needed to be fixed.

Indeed, Nevada district court Judge Charles Thompson ruled that Kucinich could not be legally barred from the debate, saying that he was a legitimate candidate who was “uninvited under circumstances that appear to be that they just decided to exclude him” (The Nation.com, 1/15/08).

But NBC successfully appealed its case to the state Supreme Court, saying that the revised standards were “in no way designed to exclude any particular candidate based on his or her views,” and were a “good faith editorial choice of a privately owned cable network to limit debate participants based on the status of their campaigns.” (Given that the legal argument involved FCC equal time rules, the network aired the debate only on its MSNBC cable channel, and not on its NBC affiliates in Nevada–thus limiting the actual audience for the debate).

While their argument worked in court, the fact that NBC journalists offered little in the way of a public explanation for their decision is troubling. Why were the original standards for the debate suddenly not good enough? NBC declared that it was merely exercising “journalistic discretion,” but why did that discretion change so quickly?

The obvious answer is that when the previous criteria were set, there were four candidates polling better than Kucinich in the Democratic race. When one of them, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, dropped out of the race, NBC suddenly switched to a standard that only allowed the top three candidates to debate.

Does Kucinich’s campaign represent ideas that offend either NBC managers or their bosses at General Electric? It’s a fair question, given that MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue’s nightly show in early 2003 due to the host’s opposition to the Iraq War; the company worried that the host would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war” (FAIR Press Release, 4/3/03).

Kucinich’s peace platform might be something that a major defense contractor like General Electric would rather not expose to voters on its cable network. Likewise, Kucinich’s strong opposition to nuclear power likely doesn’t sit well with GE, a major player in the industry; the issue was sure to come up in any debate in Nevada, where the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is intensely controversial.

Indeed, one of the rare challenges from the NBC moderators at the Las Vegas debate came in response to John Edwards’ critical comments about nuclear power. Meet the Press host Tim Russert responded:

Senator Edwards, you say you’re against nuclear power. But a reality check: I talked to the folks at the MIT Energy Initiative, and they put it this way, that in 2050, the world’s population is going to go from 6 billion to 9 billion, that CO2 is going to double, that you could build a nuclear power plant one per week and it wouldn’t meet the world’s needs. Something must be done, and it cannot be done just with wind or solar.

It’s also worth noting that NBC–like most other corporate media outlets–has had little time for Kucinich’s campaign from the start, deciding long ago that the candidate was simply not viable. Kucinich’s name has been mentioned only a few times in passing on NBC Nightly News, and Kucinich–unlike six other Democratic candidates–has yet to appear as part of Meet the Press‘s “Meet the Candidates” series.

In a rare case of self-examination from network journalists, Meet the Press host Tim Russert spoke to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams about the media’s role in marginalizing certain candidates (1/3/08):

The second-tier candidates, they get angry.

They think that the press doesn’t focus on them, spends too much time talking about the front-runners in the debates, in the coverage day by day. But we say to them: “Well, make your mark. Start showing some growth. Start showing some resonance with the populace and you’ll get the same kind of coverage.” They’ll say, “Wait a minute. How do we get resonance if we’re not covered?” It’s an important issue that we have to keep examining, our own behavior.

Perhaps Russert could examine that behavior now, and explain to NBC viewers and voters why the network has exerted so much effort to marginalize Kucinich’s candidacy.


Please ask NBC to explain why it changed its original debate criteria to exclude Rep. Dennis Kucinich from their January 15 debate. Also, encourage Meet the Press host Tim Russert to be fair to Kucinich and invite him to participate in the “Meet the Candidates” series.



Phone: 212 664-4444
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NBC host Tim Russert via the Meet the Press web contact form:

Feel free to respond to FAIR ( fair@fair.org ). We can’t reply to everything, but we will look at each message. We especially appreciate documented examples of media bias or censorship. And please send copies of your correspondence with media outlets, including any responses, to fair@fair.org

Groups urge CRTC to protect Canadian media from foreign takeover

November 18, 2007

November 16, 2007

Groups urge CRTC to protect Canadian media from foreign takeover

Gatineau – The Council of Canadians and the Campaign for Democratic Media (CDM) are urging the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to reject an application by CanWest MediaWorks to acquire Alliance Atlantis Communications in partnership with an affiliate of the U.S. investment banking giant Goldman Sachs and Company.

“On paper, the companies have gone to great lengths to meet the technical requirements of Canada’s Broadcasting Act which restrict foreign ownership,” says Garry Neil of the Council of Canadians, who will be appearing at the public hearing on Monday, November 19. “But if the deal goes through, it will effectively allow a U.S. corporation to own and control two of Canada’s largest media companies.” For the purpose of its acquisition of Alliance Atlantis, CanWest has entered into a partnership with GS Capital Partners (GSCP), an affiliate of Goldman Sachs and Company. GSCP will acquire by far the largest equity interest in the company that will own the broadcast companies of Alliance Atlantis and into which CanWest’s broadcasting assets will be transferred.

“There appears to be no real benefit to Canadians from the proposed deal,” says Steve Anderson, coordinator of the Campaign for Democratic Media. “We need a Canadian-owned system that is committed to providing news and other programming that reflects the diversity of our population. Wall Street is not likely to help us get there.”

The Council of Canadians and the CDM will be among the groups protesting outside the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing on Monday, November 19 at 8:15 a.m.

About us:

Founded in 1985, the Council of Canadians is Canada’s largest citizens’ organization, with members and chapters across the country. We work to protect the public interest by promoting progressive policies on fair trade, clean water, energy security, public health care, and other issues of social and economic concern.

Canadians for Democratic Media is a national, non-profit, non-partisan media reform network working to increase informed public participation in Canadian media policy formation. We strive to generate policies that will produce a more competitive diverse, and public service-oriented, media system with a strong non-profit and non-commercial sector.

For more information, please contact:

Meera Karunananthan: 613.233.4487 ext.234, 613.795.8685 (cell); meera@canadians.org; canadians.org; democraticmedia.ca

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Stop the Big Media Takeover

What’s At Stake
Over 1,900 Canadians from across the country swamped the CRTC with comments demanding a less concentrated, more diverse media system.


Media ownership is more highly concentrated in Canada than almost anywhere else in the industrialized world. As of 2005, almost all private Canadian television stations are owned by national media conglomerates and, because of increasing cross-ownership, most of our newspapers are owned by the same corporations that own television and radio stations.This means a handful of Big Media Conglomerates control what Canadians see, hear and read. It means less local and regional content, more direct control over content by owners and less analysis of the events that shape our lives. It also means less media choice for Canadians and fewer Canadian journalists covering news and events that Canadians care about.

As big media increasingly merge with Internet service providers, we also risk unwittingly trading our open Internet for a closed system. In such a system, Internet (and cell phone) service providers can push traffic to their own content and that of their partners, while traffic to other more diverse media sites is slowed or blocked. We need to reverse this trend before big media gets even bigger!

What’s Next?

1. Contact your MP and tell them to stand up for media diversity:Find your MP by Postal CODE

We recommend you write a personal letter but you can also use this pre-written letter, you can also learn more about the issues.

2. Stay informed on crucial media democracy points of interventions, sign up to our MediaActive Mailing list

The MediaActive mailing will keep you in loop regarding pressing Canadian media reform matters. The list won’t clog your inbox. SIGN UP

3. Add your name or an organization/business you represent to our growing list of Campaign supporters.

4.Spread the word
Unless citizens speak out, the debate will continue to be dominated by large media corporations. Please forward this message to encourage others to participate in this crucial campaign. Tell your family and friends about this important campaign.


“Rules to curb the concentration of media in Canada are long overdue. In Vancouver, Canwest controls both the main newspapers plus television. News items and opinions that disagree with Canwest’s are simply not reported. We cannot sustain a democracy without a free press. I have written to my MP several times about this, but still nothing is done. The CRTC must act NOW, to diminish media concentration in our country.”

~Olive Skene Johnson – Vancouver, B.C.
See what other Canadians are saying

Stop the Big Media Takeover: VIDEO – Canadians for Democratic Media

Canadians for Democratic Media

CBC pulls film after calls from Chinese embassy

November 13, 2007

On November 5, I posted a notice about an upcoming CBC documentary, “Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of the Falun Gong”. However, CBC caved in to pressure from the Chinese embassy and pulled the film about the persecution of the spiritual movement by the Chinese regime. This should have Canadians very concerned and asking some serious questions about just who is calling the shots at our national news broadcaster?

Please read this piece on Wednesday-Night:

Documentary follows the Falun Gong movement
James Cowan, National Post
November 08, 2007

The CBC postponed the airing of a documentary about the Falun Gong spiritual movement after receiving calls from the Chinese embassy expressing concern about the film’s subject matter.
Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of the Falun Gong was scheduled to appear on Tuesday evening on CBC Newsworld.
It was replaced at the last minute by a rerun of a documentary on Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan. The broadcaster says it changed its schedule because recent turmoil in Pakistan made the Musharraf documentary “timely.”
However, a spokesman acknowledged the CBC has received calls from Chinese diplomats about Beyond the Red Wall and intends to review the documentary’s contents before returning it to its broadcast schedule. More